A mixed martial arts bruiser adorns the cover of ESPN The Magazine's latest issue, just days prior to Big Brown's run at the Belmont Stakes. And now, as Belmont Week opens, the Internet rage focuses on whether or not Kimbo Slice's nationally televised beat-down of James Thompson was rigged.
And people wonder why in the world I crave the warm-and-fuzzy stories of horses like Smarty Jones.
Four years ago this week, it was Smarty Jones adorning that mag's cover, the very same week Sports Illustrated also emblazoned the super chestnut on its front page with the headline: "Why Everybody Loves Smarty Jones: The Horse from the Wrong Side of the Tracks Looks Fit for a Triple Crown." You may recall, more than 8,500 well-wishers packed into Philadelphia Park to watch Smarty Jones merely exercise before heading off to the Belmont.
For the record, SI opted for Josh Hamilton as this week's coverboy, featuring a recovering drug and alcohol abuser in pursuit of baseball's Triple Crown -- four months before the end of the season.
So pardon me again for the emptiness felt for Big Brown's pursuit of history -- it looks like there's plenty of company.
The difference is, as a racing industry insider and someone who has made most of my adult living in and around the game, I'm not supposed to say it. If you don't believe me, you should see my E-mail in-box. The stack of people who've voiced to me that they can't warm up to Big Brown's attempt includes past and present trainers, owners, ex-riders and spouses of all, not to mention high-ranking industry officials who can't say it aloud and countless fans at varying levels of frustration with a game trying to outrun its own demons.
In the spirit of fairness, there certainly is a camp staunchly supporting Big Brown. No doubt, many thirst for historic happenings. The younger fans of the game vociferously have blogged that their day in the Triple Crown sun has finally come. Meanwhile, many others have chosen to separate their opinions of the shady human characters surrounding Big Brown and the immensely talented horse himself. And many others choose to admit racing's drug culture is flawed and Big Brown merely is just part of it -- racing on a jaded, albeit level playing field. (Though I've always had a real problem when "everyone cheats" becomes your best defense in any walk of life.)
And, in continuance of the fairness thread and not to pounce solely on Big Brown's connections, even the feel-good Smarty Party had Belmont Week stories of jockey Stewart Elliott's alcohol-induced history. You may recall he nearly beat a man to death with a pool cue before going into rehab. In this era, there's no running from the police blotter when it comes to today's sports society.
But there's simply no feel-good story for me surrounding Big Brown, just manufactured manure from the publicity machine.
Few can vouch if Rick Dutrow parties as hard today as he ever did, but his reputation remains legendary and he admitted Derby Week that the hardest thing still for him to do is make it to the barn every morning because he likes to stay out late with his friends.
So, this is not a story of overcoming personal demons. Stop those presses.
The violins and mood-music features for Dutrow's former life at the barn at Aqueduct is stomach-turning; Dutrow was never homeless. He had the same roof over his head that thousands of grooms have had throughout horse racing history -- a tack room with a cot. To boot, it was free; the racetrack doesn't charge stall rent. Homeless is a war veteran whose country turns its medical backs on him and he winds up living on a street or in an empty water pipe.
Are we supposed to feel sorry for a high-school dropout who had every chance to be a success, raised by one of Maryland's top trainers who basically threw him out on the street and told those around him his son would wind up in the penitentiary or Hall of Fame? To Dutrow's credit, he does not ask for sympathy here and admits he would do it all again to get to where he's at.
While Dutrow's lack of respect for the competition can rub you the wrong way, it also can be taken as pure confidence. That's in the eye of the beholder, admittedly. But his lack of respect for fellow horsemen, such as John Servis, and critical comments as to the way they have trained their horses is downright blasphemy. And it's impossible to trust and believe in your heart of hearts that a trainer who spends every working moment around his horses has no idea the therapeutic or detrimental effects anabolic steroids has on his horses, but says he simply uses them because they are legal and his vet gives the thumbs up.
Meanwhile, the biggest national news splash leading up to the Belmont has come from Bloomberg, of all places. Big Brown's front man, IEAH Stable co-president Michael Iavarone, became mainstream and tabloid news fodder because of his past troubles in stock trading more than a decade ago.
While the penny stock problems sound small and irrelevant on the surface, you have to consider that IEAH is a syndicate stable, which gathers and spends other people's money on the basis of trusted expertise. And things like an inflated biography on a stable's website don't mean much when you're talking about a businessperson who solely owns his or her racehorses. But in the context of a syndicate, which lures new and unknowledgeable owners to a complex business, it raises legitimate questions. Toss in the never-before-done $100 million hedge fund project IEAH is set to roll out, and you have the makings for justified inspection. Maybe there's nothing to the story; but given what they're attempting to do, business-wise, it certainly IS a story.
But it's not all negative from this corner. This is not protectionist history for superstars of bygone eras that I somehow feel Big Brown does not deserve equal billing. The horse could very well win by 20 lengths on Saturday and deserve every ounce of credit. I truly respect his talents, both in today's scope and in racing's historical retrospect. He's done things that simply aren't supposed to have been done -- and done them with ease. "All-time great" is a label that definitely could stick with another commanding performance on the track and clock.
I rooted vehemently for recent Triple Crown hopefuls like Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Smarty Jones and Funny Cide -- many of which I bet against in the Derby. At times, I've been against the would-be Triple Crown winner, rooting for my favorites Bet Twice over Alysheba and Lemon Drop Kid over Charismatic. In 2002, I simply felt War Emblem was phony and unworthy, and sided with history in protecting the Triple Crown until a more-worthy suitor would reappear.
And, bar none, I'd rather see Big Brown's jockey, Kent Desormeaux, ride a Triple Crown winner more so than any other active jock in America. I can truly wrap my arms around him and feel good about my sports psyche, and I certainly enjoy the warm-and-fuzzies associated with his young son, Jacob, who is battling the rare Usher disease. Watching that young man's face light up could probably power a few New York City blocks. A Big Brown victory would make me most happy for deserving family and its talented patriarch.
But make no mistake, a Big Brown victory won't be Hollywood's typical racetrack movie material. Someone may try to do it, but that would be on a more fictional than factual basis. Rather, this Triple Crown story will be more like the inevitable pursuit Barry Bonds made toward Hank Aaron's all-time home run mark. Unless you're a die-hard Giants fan or someone capable of embracing statistics with total disregard for the person making them (and the edges they may or may not have gained), I doubt you were too stoked for the historic long-ball chase.
If Big Brown wins the Triple Crown, I guess you can say I'll show the same excitement MLB commissioner Bud Selig showed Bonds. Immediately thereafter, we'll all have to sort it out in our minds and souls as to what it means to each of us. No doubt, you'll hear plenty of Bondsian talk. After No. 756, you'll recall he said: "This record is not tainted at all, at all. Period. You guys can say whatever you want."
And for those of us who have followed Thoroughbred horse racing for more than the past five weeks, such will be said if, and when, Big Brown stamps himself alongside the game's 11 previous Triple Crown immortals.
Now, we'll just have to see who pops up on the sports magazine covers next week. Would I love to see a Triple Crown winner? Absolutely. Just not this one.
Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000. You can E-mail Jeremy about this topic or anything racing-related at Jeremy@horseplayerpro.com.